Universal Studios uses special effects and other eerie techniques to transport guests to nontraditional spooky places during Halloween Horror Nights, which returns to the theme park Friday, Sept. 20 and runs for 27 select nights through Nov. 2.
This year's scare fest features eight maze-based haunted houses set in locales such as the afterlife of a serial killer, inside a video game, a monster-heavy underground government facility and wolf-riddled London.
"It's always difficult when you're trying to create exterior environments in an interior space," says creative director Michael Aiello, who helps design and manufacture the mazes in large soundstages and other backstage structures at Universal.
For the house based on the television series "The Walking Dead," Universal made scenes from the third season of the AMC zombie-driven drama, including a pivotal prison. It's the second year for "Walking Dead" to be represented at Horror Nights, and it's been moved to a large, backstage building that normally houses the park's parade floats. It needed space, Aiello says.
"We knew we wanted to do the chain-link maze that has the tower as its focus point," Aiello says. "That could not have been done anywhere but in a soundstage or B79 [float building]."
Recognizable walkers — the "Walking Dead" term for zombies — have been added to the lineup.
"We didn't have any specific characters last year, but this year we're able to use Milton and Merle and Penny," Aiello says.
Universal worked with AMC to include exclusive content about Penny's home.
"We're actually showing a little bit more than the show shows," Aiello says. "We never actually see where she lives" on TV.
Universal teamed with director John Landis on a house based on his 1981 film "An American Werewolf in London."
"John really challenged us to get it as close to the film as we possibly can," Aiello says.
What guests will see in the Horror Nights version of England: a double-decker bus, Picadilly Circus, the interior and exterior of the theater seen near the film's climax and the Tube, London's subway.
The wolf is actually a pack of elaborate puppets, but this is not Muppet territory.
"Everything having to do with the wolf has turned out exactly the way we wanted it to," Aiello says.
For the house called Havoc2: Derailed, Universal's creative team pulled off a longtime goal by achieving a train wreck, Aiello says.
Although the train cars are not moving, the house features a before-and-after motif. The crash point is accompanied by blinding light and very loud sound effects, Aiello says.
"The back half was an easier build than the front half for us because building confined train cars is something we've never done before," he says. "Building chaotic destruction — we're really good at."
The plan is for folks to feel like they've been jostled about in the melee. Universal will use "air bladders" to bounce guests in the right direction. Aiello calls it an experiment.
"We're either (a) going to be really good at it or (b) we're going to learn from it," he says. "We do stuff like that every single year because it's the only way this event moves forward with the type of effects we do."